Pamplin Media Group – Northwest Children’s Theater has Broadway in mind

The long-running Portland children’s theater will begin in 2023 in a sleek new space downtown called The Judy

PHOTOS COURT: NORTHWEST CHILDREN'S THEATER - After 30 years, NWCT is relocating to the former Regal multiplex at 1000 SW Broadway.

When Northwest Children’s Theater and School (NWCTS) announced it was moving from the former church in Northwest Portland, where it has been for 30 years, to the former Regal multiplex at 1000 SW Broadway across from the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, it threw some Questions on .

  • How do you turn stencil cinemas into playhouses while still bringing the romance of the stage with all its lights, backdrops and backstage magic?
  • Would it make any difference facing their friendly rival, the Oregon Children’s Theatre, operated out of Portland’5 Centers for the Arts (The Newmark, Winningstad and Brunish Theatres)?
  • Is NWCT finally done with the horrifying saga of ownership at its old site, the grand former church at 1819 NW Everett St.?
  • What’s the deal with the Kafoury family anyway, whose Judy Kafoury founded the theater and donated $2 million for the move?
  • In the new space, called the Judy Kafoury Center for Youth Arts Plans, NWCT will have two theaters and a small movie theater, as well as a maker space and classrooms. Camps and classes are their bread and butter, where kids put on a show or take a master class in playwriting or directing. Since most of the shows are matinees, it’s also worth subletting the space for performances by other theater companies, lectures, bands, and birthday parties.

    PHOTO COURTLY NORTHWEST CHILDREN'S THEATER - NWCT is known for colorful productions such as "Mary Poppins" and "Elephant and Piggie's We're in a play!" (to be seen here) or "Heide: The Musical."

    What is now referred to as the NW Neighborhood Cultural Center was built in 1912 as a Christian Science church, a role it was far better suited for than a theater, NWCT executive director Nick Fenster told Pamplin Media Group. The dome of the main room was designed to project the unamplified voice of a single preacher. It takes a lot of microphones to clean up the acoustic chaos under the dome with multiple actors on a stage. Audience seating is also spread wide but doesn’t set back very far from the stage, the opposite of what a theater needs.

    On a guided tour of the building, Fenster showed the confusing tangle of small rooms, staircases and corridors. It’s home but they’re ready for an upgrade and a new landlord.

    NWCT will lease the new Broadway premises for 31 years, but requires $6.3 million for the renovation, which will span the ground floor, mezzanine and basement of the office tower. The works include dividing the cinemas, creating a proscenium arch and space for backdrops, and displaying cinema chain mogul Tom Moyer’s collection of neon signs in the lobby.

    Turner Construction will lay concrete to level a floor. To save money and weight, the contractor pours it over foam blocks. There is also an elevator that only serves the three floors, which will be costly to expand.

    PMG PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Nick Fenster (centre) in the future lobby of The Judy, home of NW Children's Theatre, with John Ellingson and Sarah Jane Hardy.

    aha moment

    Most of the cost goes to upgrading the lighting systems. Of the lightbulbs they’re currently using, Fenster said, “They’re incredible power guzzlers. They’re basically really good space heaters that put out a little light.” Just to use these lights, they had to add thick power cords and extra junction boxes. Now that LED stage lights have evolved to project natural colors and tones (rather than garish pinks and blues), NWCT will be upgrading for the move.

    “The biggest thing is that LEDs are five times more expensive per fixture than incandescent bulbs, so we’re working with Oregon’s Energy Trust to create some incentives.” He estimates these one-time incentives could total $100,000.

    Fenter joked that he now has an advanced degree in theater management, which he will never use again. NWCT has been looking for a new venue for years, and its lease was due to end in October. They looked at the conversion of warehouses, offices and schools; they considered a distributed campus (theatres here, classrooms there); They looked at building from scratch. After the last promising candidate (conversion of an old restaurant) failed in autumn 2021, Fenster was discouraged.

    “I literally said I just can’t take it anymore. It’s too heartbreaking because you put so much time and creative thought into developing business models and your architectural design. Then we got a call from a guy at Turner Construction who had just been hired to work on a downtown building. He said, “You have this really interesting room in your basement, if you want to see it, I have the key.” And we fell in love with him. That was in January and we signed a lease in early April.”

    NWCT signed the lease on April 8 and filed tenant improvement permits in June. If all goes well — including raising the last $2.1 million of the $6.3 million they need — they’re hoping for a New Year’s Eve party and grand opening in January 2023.

    SERA Architects had worked on the plans three times, so creating a fourth draft wasn’t a big deal.

    Window writes waist-high cash grants from the various COVID and cultural funds. Then there is a mailing list.

    Not to ask

    “We’ve had 30 years of alumni, and every family I’ve spoken to has volunteered here at some point. If everyone just donates $10, $50, $100 to the campaign, we’ll fill the gap immediately. This is the time to make it happen. There will never be a request that big again.

    Dramas like house prices, landlord-tenant disputes, and political dynasties (see sidebar) may be commonplace in Shakespeare, Ibsen, and Chekhov, but they don’t excite children. NWCT is known for colorful productions of shows like “Mary Poppins” and “Elephant and Piggie’s We Are In A Play!” or for (and by) teenagers, Heathers: The Musical.

    Window says he’s often asked why Portland has two children’s theater companies, but not why there are dozens of competing adult companies. He doesn’t think two is too much and says they get along.

    “We have a lot of artists, teachers, students, and families in common, and that’s really great for Portland’s arts ecosystem.” One difference is that OCT’s venues are union-run, so kids don’t have hands-on training in sound, lighting, and backdrop can get.

    “The big difference is that we control our venue, and especially now that we’re going to have two venues and a cinema, there’s a lot more flexibility in what we can program.”

    SIDEBAR

    what’s in a name

    Northwest Children’s Theater and School founder Judy Kafoury donated $2 million to the new complex. The Judy Kafoury Center for Youth Arts has been branded “The Judy” in advance. This is a twist on the standard Kafoury branding process in Portland. Nearby is Gretchen Kafoury Commons, an affordable housing development on Southwest 13th Avenue named after the feminist politician.

    Deborah Kafoury, the current Multnomah County Chairperson, is Judy’s niece.

    Greg Kafoury runs the law firm of Kafoury & McDougal, where his and Judy’s son Jason is also a lawyer.

    Greg and Judy also have sons Andrew and Michael who are active in residential real estate.

    Greg’s brother David Kafoury ran the family business which manufactured and designed women’s clothing and has twin daughters and a son, Trevor Kafoury, who is in the real estate business.

    Greg has two other brothers, Stephen, a former lawmaker (Deborah’s father), and Ivan Jr., who sold radio advertising space and has two sons. Jeff was one of the owners of Harvey’s Comedy Club and Kenny is the general contractor.

    According to NWCT executive director Nick Fenster, Andrew, Michael and Jason starred on the NWCT’s stage, as did Judy and Gregory, and their family ara, Ruby, was in “Swiss Family Robinson.”


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